Editors Pick

Why you need to have a happy workforce

4th December 2023

Harvey Soning on the importance of not going to university and learning on the job

Harvey Soning

My education wasn’t what you’d expect. My grandparents on my mother’s side came from Russia and Poland – that was in 1912. Within two years my grandfather was conscripted into the First World War. He spoke very little English but learnt very quickly in the trenches – mostly swear words.

On the other hand, my father’s parents were here a generation before and were quite anglicised. My father’s father – a second generation immigrant – was an entrepreneur who built one of the first cinemas in the country in Staines. One month he had money – the next he didn’t: in that sense, he was a typical entrepreneur. In 1945, my Dad came out of the Air Force Bomber Command with £300 and went into the retail business. He became a successful businessman with a property portfolio.

At the age of 14¾, I had the most diabolical school report: I was drawing aeroplanes and battleships when I was supposed to be doing schoolwork. We lived in Willesden at the time and my father said enough was enough. The headmaster said the best thing my father could do, was to send me to an aircraft factory in Cricklewood and see if they would give me a job and draw aeroplanes for the rest of my life.  Fortunately, my father phoned George Farrow, of Peachey Property, his friend in Kent, and said: “I’ve got this boy Harvey, and I don’t know what I’m going to do with him”.  George said: “Send him to me and we will make a man of him.” Peachey Property was based in Petts Wood, Kent, and so it was quite a commute: Willesden Green to Charing Cross, then Charing Cross to Petts Wood. I was paid £24 a week, of which £15 went on the fares even in those days. That’s how I got into the real estate industry.

My education was, as they say, on the job. It was January 1st, 1960, when I started.  There were no bank holidays not the three-days-a-week in the office like there is now; it was full-on office work. The Corps of Commissionaires Sergeant used to clip me round the ear quite hard to make sure I had a clean desk –it’s how I was brought up and trained. You had to be the first in and last out: eight in the morning to eight o’clock at night.

You could almost say that the old work ethic has now been all but destroyed and in the same way the mobile phone is destroying the art of communication, but this is the world we’re living in. In the 1960’s, London was being rebuilt. The smart money was buying the plentiful bomb sites, especially in the City and the East End.

Despite the long hours, I got the property bug. Shelter is fundamental to human beings, whether that be a cave or modern home. We all must buy food and clothes – so retail is inevitable – and the retail has a supply chain, so you need warehousing and factories and so on. All of which makes real estate one of the most important factors of human life on earth, after food and water.

It was on my 15th birthday that I started working in real estate. I have always admired the architecture and the sheer guts of these people to put these buildings up, From the early entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) and John Nash (1752-1835) who built this country, and then latterly for Irvine Sellar and Renzo Piano who built the Shard in the midst of a recession.

Of course, you mainly read of the successes, but there have been lots of disasters as well.   More people have lost fortunes than the few who have succeeded. There are tens of thousands of people in this country involved in real estate as agents, architects, builders, and developers. I go to cocktail parties at Christmas, and look around me and think: “Wow, how do all these people earn a living in the Real Estate Industry”.

I started life at Peachey Property Corporation who seconded me to estate agents for experience. I stayed there until the late 60s – a good 10 years – then I joined a company called Guardian Properties in which my father was a shareholder. Unfortunately, that went the way of many other real estate companies in 1974, which was the first crash after the Second World War. It was a secondary banking crash that brought down public-private real estate companies. At that point I thought: “Sod this business of working for other people” and I formed James Andrew as a commercial estate agency. I certainly didn’t think it was going to last for 50 years!

I had £5,000 and named the company after my two eldest sons. I immediately received a desist letter to stop using the name because there was already a company with the same name in existence. I couldn’t afford new notepaper – you had to write letters to each other in those days, so I reversed the names. One of my first clients was Gerald Ronson who is still a client after 50 years, Sir Martin Sorrell followed a few years later. We have some very loyal clients including Sir Lloyd Dorfman, a Sovereign Wealth Fund, and a major Japanese Institution, who have been with us for 35 years.

I don’t think setting up a business has changed all that much since we came out of the dark ages. Human beings are great at invention – whether that invention takes the form of technology, medicine, electronics, or some other commercial enterprise, and look at the tech businesses that have grown in the last 20 years. It’s the human drive. You have got to prove in a very small way that what you are trying to do actually works – and I would advise doing that with as little money as possible.

The 1980s was amazing to witness. You have to hand it to Margaret Thatcher and her advisers as well: she had a great vision. When you met Thatcher, she was always straight to the point: no pleasantries about family life or anything like that. Right away the facts came out: she had a great brain.

After what her successors have done to the economy, we’re now in a different world. We are still suffering from austerity and Covid 14 years after the last financial meltdown. There has always been tax, the only consolation being if you are paying tax, you are making a profit; tax runs the country. Has tax been a disaster for the real estate industry? Not really.  Corporation tax hasn’t moved too much either way with the changing of the governments. For private individual rates have not been the problem it’s the removal of allowable expenditure. Local taxation whether it be residential or commercial property is starting to hurt more and more, especially if you have a vacant property where there is no income. I am pleased Entrepreneurs’ Relief is still 10%-20%, depending on the circumstances, and CGT on most transactions.

I would prefer to see entrepreneurial relief, at even lower levels to encourage new start-up businesses, as we talked about before. I think there should be at least a 5-year period before any tax on start-up businesses is charged. The government should also be providing more money for young entrepreneurs; we certainly need to encourage young people in this country to create the growth the economy requires.

We need more bursary schemes for students and apprenticeships.  I am involved in a bursary for the Worshipful Company of Chartered Surveyors.   We have been very successful and have got 30 youngsters going through university that would have had no chance of being involved in higher education or know about the real estate and construction industry. It’s a great country of opportunity.   We need governments to encourage people to try and progress themselves out of the mire.

Harvey Soning FRICS, is the founder, Chairman and CEO of James Andrew International

Ambassador to the Royal Air Force Museum

Founding Member of the Natural History Museum Foundation


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